Sunday, October 23, 2011

The Mind of the Lord

Romans 9 - 11

(Since I'm lazy about footnotes, let me just say that my favorite Bible commentary resource is The Interpreter's Bible, and I used it for clarification of the numerous translations of this passage that I read.)

Paul's ideas about what salvation is and who will be saved fill these three chapters. There is probably enough thought provoking material here for a year long study. So, in the interest of time, let's cut to the chase. The core of the message is the assurance of salvation found in 10:9,  "...if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved."

Simple enough, right?

This good news is contained in an exposition on the providence of God that contains a large number of Old Testament quotations that illustrate God's divine purposes in history. The disruption among the Jews that was caused by Jesus created the opportunity for Gentiles to enter into grace along with God's chosen Israel. I seldom hear the distinction of "Jew" or "Gentile" in religious discussions, so I like the Message terms of "insider" and "outsider." A more scholarly sounding dichotomy is "ethnic Israel" (Esau) and "remnant Israel" (Jacob). Whatever the name, the insiders walked out and left the door open and the outsiders walked in, but they left the door open too, so the insiders can come back in. Paul says not to worry about the insiders, that "all Israel will be saved" (11:26) because "the gifts and calling of God are irrevocable" (11:29).  The Message translation: "From your point of view it looks like the Jews are are God's enemies. But looked at from the long-range perspective of God's overall purpose, they remain God's oldest friends. God's gifts and God's call are under full warranty -- never canceled, never rescinded." in other words, it's a matter of temporary failure, rather than final disaster. I'd love to hear more about that, but Paul says that his calling is to the outsiders so he shifts his focus there.

According to Romans 10 in the Message, "salvation is God's business and a most flourishing business it is... Embrace God's work of doing in us what he did in raising Jesus from the dead...Embrace God setting things right and then you say it, right out loud, God has set everything right between him and me! No one who trusts God like this -- heart and soul-- will ever regret it. It's exactly the same no matter what a person's religious background may be; the same God for all of us, acting the same incredibly generous way to everyone who calls out for help. Everyone who calls, "Help, God!" gets help." That's the insiders and the outsiders. The ones who know the "right" words to say and the "right" prayer to pray and those who can only utter "sighs too deep for words" (8:26).  We sometimes think grace is limited to the right people, but the Bible doesn't seem to share this idea.

In case anyone accuse Paul of rejecting the God of his ancestors, he quotes liberally from the words of Moses, Hosea, Isaiah, and David. There are too many references to reproduce here, but Isaiah had a nice summary statement regarding the outsiders, "People found and welcomed me who never so much as looked for me. And I found and welcomed people who had never even asked about me."  In Martin Luther's preface to Romans he concurs, "the eternal predestination of God concerning whether a person is to believe or not may be taken entirely out of our own hands and placed in the hands of God. And this is of the very highest importance. For we are so feeble and full of uncertainty that, if it depended on us, not a single person would be saved." Ok, there, I've finally gotten around to the "P" word that is so troublesome to so many -- predestination. Even Luther acknowledges, "a person cannot contemplate predestination without injury to himself and without harboring a secret grudge against God." I agree. The idea that God randomly chooses some to save and some to torment is not exactly conducive to warm fuzzy feelings about God. Paul explains that the "elect" or "remnant" who are chosen without regard to their merit will be used by God to ultimately benefit those not presently belonging to the saving line (9:11-16). So election is the result of mercy and compassion rather than wrath. That's a lot easier to swallow. Paul quotes Hosea to say that it's always been this way, "Those who were not my people I will call my people, and her who was not beloved, I will call beloved."

Paul wants us to understand this "mystery" (11:25). In the New Testament, "mystery" is not a riddle, but God's saving purpose in Jesus Christ, revealed in the gospel and apprehended by faith. "God has imprisoned all in disobedience so that he may be merciful to all" (11:32). Human disobedience is overcome by God's mercy. Chapter 11 concludes with a doxology that assures us of God's love and wisdom.

"For who has known the mind of the Lord?
Or who has been his counselor?
Or who has given a gift to him, to receive a gift in return?
For from him and through him and to him are all things.
To him be the glory forever. Amen"

Sunday, October 16, 2011

What Can Separate Us from the Love of God?

Romans 8

v. 1-13
Paul begins this chapter with a comparison of two ways of life: physical and spiritual. Living "in the flesh" means that there's no way to go but down. All flesh decays no matter how much Botox gets injected into it. And living "in the spirit" still must take place in our physical existence, so we have to keep our personhood in such a way that it is guided from above into a life of God's freedom. Paul speaks of a "law" of the spirit that liberates from the law of sin and death. We're made free before we fully realize it (assuming that we ever do fully realize it). Actually, verses 1-4 make a pretty complete summary gospel statement all by themselves.

v. 15-27
In these verses, we read of a distinctive relationship that is possible with God. Bondage and fear are replaced by the joy of being a child of God and a joint heir with Christ in a large family. We are assured that when all we can do is express "sighs too deep for words" the Spirit will articulate our prayers for us.

There is also a very odd statement about all creation longing for and sharing in the redemption of man. Somehow animals and nature are a part of redemption? That's curious.

v. 28
This often quoted verse expresses a vague Stoic optimism. "All things work together for good" doesn't mean that everything that happens is good. It certainly doesn't mean that everything that happens is God's Will. God doesn't cause evil or sin, that is, "bad things". There is nothing in life to encourage the easy optimism that everything will work out to the satisfaction of good people. In Herschel Hobbs' commentary on the book of Romans, he says that as this verse reads in the King James Version it expresses not faith, but fatalism -- somehow, someway, things will turn out all right. Hobbs says that some translations of the original texts put "God" as the subject, that is, God works through all things with his eternal redemptive purpose.

v. 29-39
I get chills every time I read this passage regarding the invincible love of God. In a series of questions and answers Paul comes to a soaring climax of his first eight chapters in concluding that , "I am persuaded that neither death nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord."

Sunday, October 9, 2011

This Life of Contradictions

Romans 7

C. S. Lewis points out that there are two things common to every human being. One, we know the right things to do. Two, we don't always do them. I know that candy corn is a waxy mess of sugar, but I eat it. I know that decorating magazines are mind candy, but I read them. I know that the spiritual disciplines will open my heart to God, but I don't take the time to practice them. Whether it's body, mind, or spirit what I want to do and what I actually do are often miles apart. In fact, sometimes the very idea of a rule tempts me to break it. I usually drive 5 mph over the speed limit regardless of what the limit is and how soon I need to get where I'm going. Ancient philosophers wrote of this struggle between conscience and deeds. The very first story in the Bible after creation concerns the allure of forbidden fruit. It's an old question, and Paul has a lot to say about it.

First Paul makes an analogy of marriage to compare our old life of bondage and our new life in Christ. A woman who dates around while her husband is living is scandalous, but if her husband is dead then no one cares who she dates. I guess it's not surprising that a bachelor like Paul would use marriage to represent the "bondage" life as opposed to the new life, but I find it highly amusing anyway. The point is that death cancels the contract. We are dead to the law and no longer bound by it. Paul notes that the law itself (whether Roman or Mosaic) represents a noble and worthy ideal of conduct, but the principal of legalism is fundamentally unsound. In verses 14-25 he discusses the imperfect control we have over our instincts and motives by pointing out that we sometimes act against our own best interests in spite of what we know and want. Moral consciousness can be an incentive for good behavior, but can just as easily produce a fascination with evil. Or as it comes out in pop music lyrics, "I'm a hazard to myself. Don't let me get me!"

What is causing this problem? Some commentaries pin it on Satan or demonic forces, but Paul makes no mention of any activity of Satan. Others use the notion of an evil impulse located within each human being. Paul's doctrine of sin is comparable to an internal civil war in which distortion of the divine gift of the law leads to moral failure and utter despair that is not abolished even by a response to the gospel. We're stuck with it.

But just as we're about to decide that the whole situation is hopeless, Paul explains that this life of contradictions is the perfect backdrop to reveal the nature of grace. The law can be twisted into a source of temptation, but grace is a perfect gift. It's a "rescue from this body of death." Jumping ahead to 11:32, "For God has imprisoned all in disobedience so that he may be merciful to all."  All? Does Paul believe in a final universal salvation? A doctrine of salvation by grace may lead to a doctrine of predestination; but a doctrine of predestination (given that God loves all) leads at least equally naturally to a doctrine of universal salvation. If love has complete control, it is bound eventually to save. How sin, unbelief, and judgement fit into this is not at all clear.   Paul seems to present both predestination and individual responsibility and it can cause great confusion. It's so easy to interpret individual responsibility into some kind of works.   I've heard many times that salvation is by grace through faith, but you have to believe. In Martin Luther's preface to Romans he says, "when hearing the gospel some go to work and by their own power frame up a thought in their heart which says: I believe. That they regard as genuine faith. But, inasmuch as it is a human figment and thought of which the inmost heart is not sensible, it accomplishes nothing and is not accompanied by any improvement. On the contrary, faith is a divine work in us, which transforms us, gives us a new birth out of God, slays the old Adam, makes us altogether different men in heart, affections, mind, and all powers, and brings with it the Holy Spirit."

Maybe we should open our minds to just how overwhelming grace really is.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Freedom That Never Quits

Romans 6

My favorite letter written by Paul is the one to the Galatians. Its theme is freedom, and it describes a religion that sets us free from within as opposed to one that coerces from without. Many people who leave the church do so to be free of an oppressive set of rules and regulations put in place by those who want to call the shots. Paul was furious not only with those who put limits on God's gift of freedom, but also with the Christians who caved in to the intimidation. The Message describes freedom as "a delicate and subtle gift, easily perverted and often squandered." In Romans 6, Paul warns against acting on a false sense of freedom that actually results in the destruction of freedom. Offering ourselves to sin might be our last free act, while offering ourselves to the ways of God leads to freedom that never quits. With God's freedom, our lives are healed and expanded into holiness. A life spent ignoring God offers far less than one that has discovered the delight of listening to God.

The church word illustrated by Romans 6 is sanctification. It's a transformation of ethics or behavior that results from an encounter with grace. Romans 1:17 says that those made righteous will live. It's a call out of death into life. Romans 6 mentions our death to  our previous existence 13 times. This concept is made tactile in the act of baptism. Baptists are skeptical regarding the power of metaphor so we make it very clear with a total immersion. I've seen pastors submerge people again if there was even a hair of their head that was left above the water! The point is that the transformation is total. Sanctification is an eternal process; one in which we "live to God" (6:10). Being buried with Christ can be translated "planted with," a gardening image that implies a process of growth. Death to the old is not the point-- it's simply the requirement for new life to begin. Resurrected life in Christ is the point.

So what does this mean for our ordinary daily lives?

Acknowledge only reigning powers. During Saddam Hussain's trial he continued to bark orders, but no one cared about his demands anymore. We must avoid being tricked into submitting to false authority, whether in the form of temptations from without or weaknesses of our will within. Living in the chains of the past is to deny the power of the gospel.
Yield the ordinary to God. I love the little book, "The Practice of the Presence of God." I pull it out and read it whenever I feel overwhelmed. It reminds me to do everything on my list to the glory of God and to keep the tasks in proportion to the bigger picture of true reality.
Focus on grace. The laws of the land as well as the laws of God are present and valid. Their restrictions and demands serve a useful purpose. However, grace is a container big enough to retain everything good about the law and still have room for much more. Freedom doesn't come through legalism. Our new life is more than just being better at keeping the old laws. Paul describes a paradox of finding perfect freedom only by choosing to serve God.

I'll let Reliant K sum it up with one of their lyrics.... The beauty of grace is that it makes life not fair.